I love Purim and Chanukkah. It’s true that these are not the major Jewish chagim, and not in some sense as important as Passover/Pesach.
But I have come to love them more and more because they are set in worlds I recognize as more contemporary than the major festivals. Their stories have more texture than the descriptions of the Torah. While there are miracles associated with Purim and Chanukkah, these stories are not driven by Divine voices and direct Divine intervention. I love these festivals because they are about Jews very much like us, at least in the themes they faced in their lives as Jews. I am probably a Purim person most of all, because that story is set like my own life in the Jewish Diaspora, but right now it’s almost Chanukkah time, and I am thinking about Chanukkah in a particular way now in December 2023 because of the war between Israel and Hamas. Chanukkah is among other things about a war in the Land of Israel. So some of the things I’ll talk about today I have talked about year after year, and some things are coming to me just this year. We’ll see when anyone listens to this or reads this in the future how much of it still resonates.
So at the end of my talk, you might not think that Chanukkah is as important for Jews as Christmas seems to be in the Christian-majority part of the world of today. But I hope I’ll persuade you not to downplay Chanukkah as merely a minor festival, and that you’ll think of Chanukkah in fact as something very important to mark at this time of year.
This talk is almost everything I probably think about Chanukkah other than the purely individual spiritual dimension. That part is very important and powerful, and not minor in Judaism either – the subject of another and much shorter talk, which I know others could teach far better than I in any case.
What is the purpose of this talk? What do I hope you’ll learn?
On both Chanukkah and Purim we say a blessing that is only said on those festivals, giving thanks for miracles that happened to our ancestors, nissim l’avoteinu, bayamim ha-haym bazman hazeh. That last phrase translates as “in those days at this time.” Which can mean that the miracles happened to our ancestors back then at this time of year -- or it can mean that those same miracles or happening are timeless, they are of that time of the past and also of this time.
Our holy days have stories, and one of the things those stories do is to remind us that the history of the holy day isn’t locked in the past. The story reverberates today, it has echoes still today and actually can affect our today; it can pre-echo today. I mentioned war in Israel as one of those echoes but I’ll offer more. The ritual telling of stories help us see the present as another chance to get a good look at dilemmas that first presented themselves in the past. Not just dilemmas that recur, but hopes that recur, and challenges and triumphs. The stories point out themes of today and affirm: That’s really important, it’s always been important.
The stories can also pick out for us things in our current reality and say: Pay more attention to this. Look at what happened at the time of the original story, and also at the ways we’ve retold the story in other generations, and you can get clues that might help you today. Or at least you can hear more options. One of the themes of Chanukkah is how Jews live in a world with a majority culture, an imperial culture. There were options pursued by different groups back then, or evaluations made about different options back then, and maybe some of those options we aren’t considering enough today, or maybe we should think about what those options looked like to generations from then up through now.
Of course at the same time, a story from a different era can’t tell us in detail what to do, about war or integration for instance. And we shouldn’t be limited to what our tradition tells us; we have to look at these things along with our tradition and see if we have something new to add to the interpretation for own day and the future, as all our generations have added and passed down to us.
So our Chanukkah story, however we tell it, cannot give us specific guidance for our day, and you might therefore wonder as I have why bother to add historical detail when we could tell a simple story. Mostly, I want to tell the story of Chanukkah in a certain way in order to affirm the agenda that comes from the original story. If you’ve been thinking already this fall about war, Jewish power, wealth, freedom, anti-Semitism, Chanukkah can say: Yes, those are important; you’re right to be focused on them right now. And if you haven’t been thinking about all of those, Chanukkah is a reminder to take eight days and do so.
Different generations seem to get the Chanukkah they need, or to make Chanukkah a bit in our image. For Jews in America in the modern age, Chanukkah has been about religious freedom. For Jews of the past century, Chanukkah has been about military heroism, certainly in Israel but also here. There’s a spiritual Chanukkah, about finding more hope than you realized was possible, and such Chanukkah might have been invented or brought to the fore during the early centuries when Jews couldn’t think about either military action or religious equality, and it means something different in our modern spiritual age.
I think the Chanukkah we need in 2023, in 5784, is about freedom, power, corruption, integration or assimiliation, authenticity, wealth, hope – all of the above. It’s probably the Chanukkah we have needed for a long time and for the foreseeable future as well.
One caveat: I am going to tell more history than you’ve probably heard in connection with Chanukkah, but I am not a historian. Knowing a bunch of history isn’t the same as being a professional historian. Academic historians have responsibilities not to let biases or contemporary agendas drive their findings, and when they have a question they are supposed to find the answer whatever interest it might or might not have for today. I have agendas, which I’ve told you. I’m interested in the history of the period of Chanukkah because of the themes I am interested in and how we live them today. I’m sure I have gaps in my knowledge. I am intrigued most by interpretations by historians that speak to those agenda, and I have no way of my own to assess debates between scholars in scholarly terms, so I could be relying on interpretations that suit my story but aren’t considered the best in the field. So if you’re interested in this history as history, by all means read or look for more.
So, let’s get into the story of Chanukkah.
First is the historical context, which those of us who learned about Chanukkah originally as kids might not have learned or wouldn’t have understood. The events of the Chanukkah festival specifically took place in the first half of the second century B.C.E., in the 160s. This would be a bit more than a century and a half after Alexander the Great, who came to power in Macedonia and Greece and then conquered much of the Middle East. It’s also about two hundred years before the end of the life of Jesus. This is about four hundred years after Jerusalem was conquered and the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.
The Chanukkah story occurred in the middle of a period that is described variously as the Hellenistic period, because of the empire and culture of the time; or the Second Temple period or the Intertestamental period. Both of these latter terms describe the centuries between the end of the history recorded in the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, and the events of the New Testament or Christian Bible.
The geographical focus of the Chanukkah story is an area called Judea in Greek, which translates the Hebrew word Yehudah, or Judah as we say in English. This is a fairly small area of land including the city of Jerusalem and extending around it and toward the Mediterranean coast, a small part of what is today Israel and the West Bank.
The simplest version of what happened is this, and it is based on a contemporary source from the time that we have in Greek and came to be called the First Book of Macabees:
A new emperor, Antiochus IV, came to power, ruling the mostly Asian section of Alexander the Great’s original empire. We term that part the Seleucid Empire, and in some tellings you hear the rulers called the Syrian-Greeks. Antiochus took over the Temple in Jerusalem, plundering it and replacing the sacrifices there with sacrifices to Zeus or perhaps other pagan gods. He is said to have considered himself a god, and he was known as Antiochus Epiphanes, god-made-manifest. Antiochus issued decrees outlawing the practices of Judaism, including circumcision, and ordered the burning of copies of the Torah. His officials went around the territory of Judea and in public squares demanded that Jews come forward and make pagan sacrifices.
They came to the town of Modi’in, which is in the foothills of Judea, roughly halfway between today’s Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. One source says the date on the Jewish lunar calendar was the 25th of Kislev. An elder of a priestly family named Matityahu (Mattathias) was asked to come and make this sacrifice but he refused. When another Jewish was brought up to make the sacrifice, Matityahu came up and killed him as well as the imperial official, and proclaimed that anyone who was ready to stand in rebellion against these decrees should come with their family, and they headed into the hills.
The family of priests was known as Chashmonai or Hasmoneans; they were a group of priests different from the Jerusalem priests about whom I’ll talk more in a while. Among Matityahu’s children was Yehudah or Judah, who was known as Maccabeus or Maccabee, apparently meaning “hammer.” He became the military leader. Nowadays Jews often refer to the whole group as the Maccabees, which is like naming your team after your captain.
Many people joined the rebels. For a few years the rebels fought a guerilla war, coming out of the hills to attack imperial forces. Eventually they gathered the numbers and strength to mount a campaign on Jerusalem and recapture the city and the Temple. They purified the Temple and rededicated the altar – Chanukkah is the Hebrew word for “dedication.” This was also the 25th of Kislev, the anniversary of the start of the uprising in Modi’in. The Chashmonaim called an eight-day celebration, to make up for and imitate the fall pilgrimage of Sukkot, which could not have been celebrated at the Temple that year. Sukkot was also when King Solomon had dedicated the original Temple around 800 years before. The Hasmoneans established this as a festival for all generations.
The story of a cruse of oil for the Temple lamps with enough for one day, but which lasted eight days, didn’t come for a few hundred years and I’ll talk later about why.
The version of Chanukkah in First Maccabees is basically the traditional Jewish story. It is about religious freedom and national liberation from a tyrannical empire, and the idea that a small dedicated force with right on their side can defeat any empire. Which is a tremendously important message, for Jews in particular but for the ages, and this dimension of the story has been adopted beyond Jews as well. This is the part of Chanukkah we talk about all the time and I hardly need to expand on why at least for now.
The book of First Maccabees also widens the frame, and gives a window into a key division within the Jews of Judea in that time. Before Antiochus, there were Jews who advocated giving up the specific, unique Jewish ways of living and wanted Jews to adopt the Hellenistic culture entirely. First Maccabees certainly exaggerates this as a stark dichotomy between Hellenizers and faithful Jews. What the book says is that the Jews who supported Hellenization reached out to Antiochus, who responded or took advantage of the situation to take more direct control. Hellenizers among the Jews are in this version largely responsible for bringing on the persecutions.
To get into this part of the story, we have to back up from the revolt of the Maccabees, back to Alexander the Great and even before.
Before the Hellenistic period, Judea and the nearby areas were part of the Persian Empire. The Persians had generally let each nation within the empire live according to its own culture and govern itself, so long as they supported the empire. When Alexander the Great conquered Jerusalem, in the later 300s B.C.E., he continued that policy in Judea. Later Jewish legends say that Alexander came to Jerusalem and honored the High Priest at the time, and offered the Jews autonomy in return for fighting in his wars and paying taxes to the empire. Whether Alexander actually came to Jerusalem who knows, but that was the policy he followed.
When Alexander died, his generals divided up his empire, and Judea was on the border between two parts – the empire of Ptolemy, centered in Egypt, with a new capital in Alexandria; and the empire of Seleucus, centered in Syria, with its new capital of Antioch. Judea was for about a century and a half part of the Ptolemaic empire, but really both empires continued the policy of cultural autonomy in return for taxes.
Sometime during the following century, so now we’re talking about the 3rd century B.C.E., the Torah was translated into Greek, a translation known as the Septuagint. The Greek-speaking Jews particularly in Egypt needed a version of the Torah for themselves that they could understand. What is at least as remarkable as a Greek-language Torah is what is revealed in a fictional story that was written about the creation of the Septuagint, a story written sometime in the aftermath of the Hasmonean revolt.
The story is known as the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates. It is part of a set of writings that came to be called pseudepigrapha. It was probably written sometime within a few decades after the revolt of the Maccabees, as strife between the Jewish kings of Judea and the Hellenistic emperors after Antiochus was still ongoing. Which is why it is such a remarkable book, because it’s about how Torah and Hellenistic culture flowed together.
In this fictional book, Aristeas the narrator presents himself as a pagan emissary of Ptolemy Philadelphus, the emperor who was at the time finishing the project of the great library in Alexandria. The king had a librarian named Demetrius, and gave him a budget for buying books encompassing the wisdom of the entire world. Aristeas is in the room when Demetrius was giving the king a report – that he had collected 200,000 books of the 500,000 he intended to procure in total. But there was one book that he couldn’t get, the Torah of the Jews, because it was in a different language and used a different script. The king drafts a letter to the high priest in Jerusalem about creating a translation of the Torah into Greek.
Aristeas tells King Ptolemy that it is hyprocritical to make this request while holding tens of thousands of Jews as captives in war, and he advocates for their emancipation. One of Aristeas’ arguments to the king is that the Jews are governed by the same God as the king; that YHWH is just another name for Zeus, who upholds your kingdom. The king agrees, and he drafts a communication to the high priest Elazar, explaining the emancipation order and asking for a team of six scholars from each tribe to come down to Egypt to translate the Torah. He sends Aristeas and one other aide to Jerusalem with gifts and a payment; the gifts include a solid gold table that the king hopes will be useful to the priests in the Temple.
Aristeas describes the scholars who were sent back from Jerusalem as steeped in both the Torah and Greek learning, men of virtue and noble parentage who spoke without pride and listened well and answered any question thoughtfully and carefully. They were basically the ideal student of Plato, and Aristeas says that the high priest Elazar was afraid that they would be so impressive that the king would insist on keeping them in Alexandria, because it was his reputation that if he met a man of excellence, prudence, and wisdom he would consider him indispensable as an advisor to the kingdom.
One of the most remarkable parts of the Letter of Aristeas is the banquet that the king prepared to welcome the seventy-two guests. First, the hosts were interested to know the special rules of eating that the Jews would require. Aristeas explains what he learned from the Jews about the details of kashurt: for instance that the split hoof and chewing the cud represent memory and thoughtful reflection; that wild animals are forbidden to eat in order to teach Jews how not to be vicious and destructive.
This way of interpreting kashrut, as a symbolic way of cultivating our minds, is a hallmark of the integration of Judaism and Greek thought. Aristeas presents a defense of kashrut that is contemporary for his time. In the Torah, kashrut is at least partly about obedience to the Divine for its own sake and the separation of Jews from others. In the Letter of Aristeas, the author has a pagan narrator Aristeas give an unabashed, positive presentation of kashrut as a perfect philosophical way of eating which the Jews can teach others. And kashrut will actually help the pagans and Jews eat together; the king’s stewards study the laws of kashrut and prepare a kosher banquet that lasts for seven days.
Each day the king asks ten of the scholars from Jerusalem a question about how to rule wisely. For instance, the king asks: “What is the essence of kingship?” And the scholar replied, “To rule oneself well and not to be led astray by wealth or fame to immoderate or unseemly desires, this is the true way of ruling if you reason the matter well out. For all that you really need is yours, and God is free from need and utterly benign. Let your thoughts be such as become a man, and desire not many things but only such as are necessary for ruling.” The king asks similarly about truth, beauty, honor, preserving power, friendship, kinship.
The king turns to his own philosophers and says that these Jewish scholars are superior, because they gave spontaneously all their wise answers, on all kinds of questions of philosophy and politics.
After the week-long banquet, the scholars are brought to a special house on a nearby island, and treated to the same food and comforts as the king. Each morning they would come to the court and then go back to the island to write. At the end of seventy-two days they produce their translation. It is read before the king, who states how impressed he is and expresses his astonishment that no historian he knew had ever mentioned anything about what was in the Torah. He presents each of the scholars with lavish gifts and sends them home along with an open invitation to return to him again anytime they wish.
The Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates purports to tell about things that happened about a century before the Hasmoneans not in Judea but in nearby Egypt nearby, and if that were the case it might be only partly relevant to the world of the Chanukkah story. Again, the Septuagint was not commissioned by the emperor but created within the Jewish community. But it’s quite likely that this story was written down after the Maccabean revolt, in the same general time period as the books of Maccabees. All these books were created for both a Jewish audience and an audience of educated, Hellenistic gentiles, and they present different pictures of the relationship of Judaism and Hellenism.
To Jews living in the aftermath of Antiochus, the Letter of Aristeas says: Even with the political persecutions we have experienced, and the ongoing conflict, we have a place among the high cultures of the world, and we should regard our own Jewish culture as impressive and a guide to modern living. And there are men of culture and power who will respect and admire us if we are willing to present our Torah in their language.
To gentiles, the books says: The laws of the Torah can be understood as a very concrete and practical path to the same learning that you value and to the virtues in life that you hold as the highest. We are not divided from you by our unique customs, or by the traditions we have which come from a long ago past. In fact we can even sit and eat together, and our customs could unite us if you actually study them with us.
And we know that at times in the 250 years between the persecutions of Antiochus and the destruction of the Temple, there were Jews and Hellenists and later on Romans who came together in this way. Who were fascinated the conversation between Judaism, Jewish practice, and philosophy. Josephus, the great Jewish intellectual of the first century C.E., was one of those people, and when he wrote his history of the Jews, he went straight from Alexander the Great to the story of Aristeas to the Maccabees. It was all part of the same picture for him. He didn’t want to give Antiochus the only word, nor the Jews who wanted to give up everything Jewish, nor the Jews who wanted nothing to do with anything Greek.
The First Book of Maccabees does not go into any of this, and conveys in its opening a suspicion of Jews who wanted to Hellenize. In the polemic there, these Jews were ready to give it all up and appealed to Antiochus as an ally. Not far from the Temple, these Jews helped get a gymnasium built, and this not only represented Greek values of physical excellence, and the beauty and perfection of the human body, but also forced the conflict between traditional Jews and Hellenists out in the open. A nude Jewish man would be seen to be circumcised, which to a Hellenistic mindset would be not just different but a desecration of the human body as a perfection. In that time period a procedure was developed for young Jewish men to have the visible evidence of circumcision altered, an incredibly painful procedure. Brit milah, circumcision, would be one very major dividing line between Jews keeping and rejecting tradition in their contemporary world.
The Hasmoneans present themselves in First Maccabees as devoted to God and the covenant, and continuing a long line of faithful Jews in the face of both foreign danger and local idolatry.
But even the Hasmoneans at the time of the revolt were not pure traditionalists, and they did not entirely reject Hellenism. We know this at least from the fact that many of them had Greek names or nicknames along with their Hebrew names, including of course Judah Maccabeus himself, and many of the descendants of Judah and his brothers came to be known by their Greek names primarily.
And while we don’t know for sure, some form of Jewish rationalism beyond the Letter of Aristeas seems to come from this general time period. Some scholars, admittedly a minority, suggest that even biblical books like Jonah and Job were finished during this period – books that are philosophical and have a universalist outlook about the Torah and the Divine. Certainly we know that a kind of Judaism based on interpretation and debate about texts eventually became the major form of Judaism, and to some degree the prototyping of this kind of Judaism was occurring in small groups during this period of time. Josephus says that a group with this philosophy called the Pharisees began in the decades following the Chanukkah story; they believed in broad interpretation of the Torah and norms beyond the literal words of the Torah.
In the debate between the authors of First Maccabees and the Letter of Aristeas, I’m obviously putting my finger on the scale. But more important is to show you that even very soon after the events of Chanukkah itself, Jews were actively debating how the ideas of Torah and Hellenism could be synthesized, or whether that synthesis could work at all. And it clearly was not a yes or no question, as it is not today.
The other theme I want to talk about is power. Chanukkah is obviously a story about a revolution through war, even in the version we tell kids. But there is much more about power than just the uprising against an unjust authority, and for that we begin with another source from the era, which is known to us as the Second Book of Maccabees.
Second Maccabees has a more elaborate preface to the persecutions of Antiochus. It begins a bit earlier during the high priesthood of Onias, which is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Choniyo or Choniyahu or possibly Yohanan, which is the origin of the name John. A lower official named Simon, which is the Greek for Shimon, had a conflict with Onias, and when Simon did not prevail he sent word to an imperial official that the Temple in Jerusalem had a great treasury stored up. So the imperial government sent someone to confiscate the money, but Onias refused and according to Second Maccabees this imperial official was stricken with a plague. Onias prayed for his healing and all was well, for a time.
But Simon, again this is a Jew within the Temple administration, continued to conspire against Onias, and when the new king Antiochus IV took over, he replaced Onias as high priest with his brother Jason. Jason was known primarily by his Greek name, at least in the text, which also identifies him as the builder of the gymnasium in Jerusalem. Second Maccabees says that at this time the priests were not even offering their sacrifices, preferring instead to go and wrestle at the gymnasium.
Jason was in turn betrayed by Menelaus, brother of Simon if you can keep track, whom Jason had sent as an emissary to the king. Again, he was a Jewish priest known by his Greek name. Menelaus bribed the king and procured the high priesthood for himself. He had Onias killed, and Jason launched his own bloody rebellion within the Jews of Judea. Eventually Antiochus himself came to the Temple and the takeover began as well as the other decrees about which I have spoken. According to Second Maccabees, Judah Maccabee was in Jerusalem at this time, and escaped the bloody power struggle to get to the outlying areas and organize the revolt.
This is a sordid tale of wealth and political power. In Second Maccabees the catastrophes of Antiochus did not original in a cultural conflict within the Jews so much as a power struggle within the nation, which fed on and fed into the cultural conflict.
Judah Maccabee’s war led to one particular new insight about Torah and fighting. Initially, Antiochus’ forces knew to attack on Shabbat, because of laws that would prevent the Jews from taking up arms. But soon the Hasmoneans and their comrades decided that the Torah could be set aside when life was at stake, and they introduced into Jewish law what we now call the principle of pikkuach nefesh docheh et HaShabbat: preserving life sets aside Shabbat and Shabbat laws. Antiochus was initially surprised by the Jews’ willingness to fight on Shabbat, so this made a difference in battle. For the long term, this change in the law came to represent the ability of Jews to reason with Torah more generally, to interpret and to assert ourselves as the ones who give life to the Torah beyond just the literal text.
After the story of Chanukkah itself and the rededication of the Temple, the war with the forces of Antiochus did not end. The Seleucid forces were not driven out of Judea, and in fact returned in the immediate aftermath to Jerusalem. But within five or ten years, the Hasmoneans were high priests and kings of Judea, and their dynasty lasted almost a century. A good of that century was continued war, and sad to say there was a good deal of infighting within the Hasmonean dynasty at many points. Much of what we might know about the Hasmonean dynasty comes from the writings in the first century C.E. of Josephus, so more than a century after the dynasty’s end. Josephus was a Jewish rebel leader who defected to the Romans, so he is not a detached source or always trustworthy. But at least in his telling, the kingdom of the Hasmoneans is not a model of self-rule or of wise rule, and some of the particular flaws of their kingship are worth noting today.
As priests, kohanim, the Hasmoneans maybe could have been expected to be the opposite of the corrupt priests such as Jason and Menelaus. On the whole, they did avoid the kind of blatant financial corruption of the earlier period. However, the fact that they became kings at all represents a problem within Judaism. It’s not the modern problem of church and state, so to speak, which wouldn’t have been a concept at that time. Though in a way it is actually that problem. The biblical and later Talmudic traditions are very cautious about the limits of priests’ authority beyond ritual, teaching, and stepping in at times to bridge gaps in public administration. In the Bible the key example of priest as public official is Ezra, who when the Jews returned from Babylonian exile was a priest and a scribe and a national leader for a time. According to the Bible, the only true Jewish kings must descend from David. So the choice of the Hasmoneans to call themselves kings at times is somewhat suspect. It’s not clear what being a provincial king meant at that time and not clear that all the Hasmonean rulers called themselves kings. But some of them certainly did.
There is archaeological evidence that at times the Hasmonean leaders strengthened Jerusalem’s defenses and advanced the economic development of Judea and the area. Josephus’ history suggests that the kings did not spend all their time in Jerusalem, as many of them engaged in military campaigns all over what we would today call Israel and even into Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Some of that was defense – the Seleucid empire did not stop its military operations in any of those areas, including Judea. Some of the Hasmonean’s military activity was expansionist. While there was Jewish history already by then in all the areas that had been part of biblical Israel, much of the population outside of Judea at the time was non-Jewish. In particular, a few decades after Judah Maccabee, King John Hyrcanus conquered Idumea, Greek for Edom, the land of Esau, and he forced the people there to convert to Judaism. He also destroyed in Samaria the longtime sanctuary of the Samaritans, a non-Jewish people north of Judea with a complicated relationship to Judeans and Judaism. These conquests and conversions did not lead to peaceful relationships, and in the next century it was an Idumean named Herod who would be installed by the Romans as the king over Judea.
Josephus says that the Hasmoneans allied themselves at different times with a mostly priestly group called the Saducees, who were associated with the operation of the Temple and a narrow, literal reading of the Torah, and sometimes with the Pharisees with their more interpretive and adaptive approach. It’s really not possible to know whether this is what happened, since we have few other sources from the Hasmonean era about Pharisees and Saducees. According to both Josephus and the much later Talmud, the conflict between king and Torah came to a head during the reign of Alexander Yannai. Josephus says he turned on the Pharisees because they refused to stand up for him sufficiently against a citizen who had slandered him and called on him publicly to king only and not high priest. The Talmud says quite the contrary, it was because the Pharisees were too afraid to hold Yannai accountable to the law that they lost their influence. Both of these are secondary sources from later, but they both suggest that the rule of at least one Hasmonean ruler was hardly one of principle guided by Torah. They didn’t plunder the Temple treasury, but they used the other religious leaders of the time for their own benefit and their own interests.
The Hasmonean rulers were always entangled with foreign powers and often dependent on them, even though their rule was based on a rebellion against imperial authoirty. The initial establishment of their kingdom depended on an alliance with the Roman republic, which was in the process of rising in the 2nd century B.C.E. At different times Hasmonean rulers made other alliances and often needed to pay tributes or taxes -- even allying sometimes with the Seleucids, whose rulers after Antiochus Epiphanes were not as crazy or evil as he had been. Finally, the end of Hasmonean self-rule came in 63 B.C.E. About one hundred years after Yehuda Hamacabi had led the Jews back to reclaim Jerusalem, the Roman general Pompey came to the Temple Mount. He had been enlisted to help settle a war between two Hasmonean brothers fighting each other for the throne, Hyrcanus and Aristobulos, but instead Pompey seized an opportunity for himself. The Hasmoneans continued as Roman puppets governing locally under them for a time. But the Romans were happy to pit Jewish and Idumean notables against each other, which led soon to Herod and eventually to the revolts and destruction of the next century and the end of the Second Temple.
It's fairly easy to point out the failures and flaws of the Hasmoneans as rulers, and no one could point to them or their century of Judean independence or partial independence as a model for today. They were not regarded as heroes after they were gone; at least we have no evidence that they were. From Josephus and from the New Testament we know that Chanukkah was celebrated, so their history was not not forgotten.
We do know that sometime after the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the new Jewish leaders, the Rabbis, downplayed Chanukkah and the story of the Hasmoneans as much as they could. While Purim has a small tractate in the Mishnah and the Talmud, Chanukkah has no book in the Mishnah and basically one page in the vast Talmud. The rabbis living under Roman and Byzantine rule did not want to encourage anyone to rebel as the Hasmoneans did, even though the Temple Mount had been turned into a pagan shrine once again. Military power was not something they wanted to promote. The rabbis may have viewed the Hasmoneans as catastrophic leaders, and certainly portrayed them as anti-Torah. It was in the Talmud, hundreds of years after the events of Chanukkah, that the rabbis first tell the story of the miracle of the oil that was only supposed to last one day but lasted for eight. They substituted spiritual for military power – in the words of the biblical prophet Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power, but only by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts.”
That view of Hasmoneans power, as fundamentally a disaster for the Jews in real-world terms and as spiritually corrupt, made sense for the many centuries before the modern era. For us, we have to find a different way to understand how self-determination, war, international relations and alliances, relations with the other peoples of the land, and power and wealth more generally affect Jewish freedom, wellbeing and Torah. The Hasmonean century doesn’t teach us how to; more how not to. That century does remind us very powerfully that there is no talking about Jewish freedom, safety, and Torah without taking into account all of those same things – self-determination, war, international relations and alliances, relations with the other peoples of the land, power and wealth. All of which affect each other in ways that are hard to predict and are intertwined, as hard to see clearly and sort out and solve as a Rubik’s cube. In that we are every bit the heirs of the Hasmoneans, the heirs of their dilemmas, and we pray we will learn from their failures and deal with the complexities with more wisdom in our own time. We know how many lives are riding on this, right this month of Chanukkah 5784 and in the years and decades to come, in Israel, Palestine, the United States and every place where Jews live.
And that is what I have to say this year about Chanukkah in a serious vein. I haven’t said anything much about the story of the miracle of the oil, beyond how late that part came into the tradition of Chanukkah. I have arrived at a view that I think our Talmudic rabbis had, which is that the storing and finding of the oil to begin with is as significant as the eight nights of light. Someone in the time of Antiochus had to imagine that within a few years, or decades, someone else would know to look and dig up this precious resource near the Temple, more valuable than any of the money that so many had fought over inside. Someone had to hope we would continue to dig up the many-layered story around Chanukkah and find an energy in it.
No historical analogy is perfect. Even if it were, the past is not doomed to repeat, nor are the good things from the past guaranteed to repeat. So we need to find an energy from digging up these stories. From the fact that our ancestors also faced similar dilemmas of freedom, power, adaptation and integration as we do, and that they did it with their backs to the wall far more than ours, and that they bothered to write a lot of it down for us. Then we need to find energy from the hints and resonances in the stories of the past that might fire our own insight, or our own commitment to expand the circle of those who are thinking about these themes, who are working on them, from one to two people, to seven to eight, and beyond. On Pesach we tell of liberation and redemption past, and then we ask what now. The values and dilemmas are framed for us, and then it’s in our hands to turn that into a charge and ask what’s next to do.
So too that’s my hope ultimately in conveying a longer, grown-ups’ story of Chanukkah. That is can be a gift of energy from our past that powers us through the Antiochus part, through the corruption of the early priests, past them toward the courage and rededication of the Maccabees, and finally toward each other -- confident that we can find a bit of insight and then more, hopeful that more of us and then even more of us will shine light toward a better ending to all the layers of the story that was begun long ago and continues now, in those days at this time, bayamim ha-hayim bazman hazeh.